Revolutionary Measures

Brand safety in the age of Trump

Marketers are all aware of the impact of social media on brand reputation. Issues can quickly go viral as consumers share complaints on Facebook and Twitter – and with the press continually monitoring for social stories, before you know it you are on the BBC News or the front page of a newspaper website.

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Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

However, what has changed in the last twelve months or so has been the impact of celebrities, including Donald Trump, on brand safety. A tweet from the US President complaining about a company can damage reputation, and even survival. Take the case of Chinese telecoms equipment maker ZTE. Convicted of breaching US sanctions on Iran and North Korea, the company first looked doomed to go out of business when it was banned from buying US components, and was then resurrected through a supportive tweet from Trump.

All a bit Thameslink
It isn’t just Trump – a tweet from author Eric Van Lustbader about food poisoning at a branch of US restaurant chain Chipotle (already reeling from an e.coli outbreak), caused its stock to fall. And in the UK, rail company Thameslink was threatened with legal action from Poundland for comparing its poor service to ‘Poundland cooking chocolate’. The retailer added that it if it ever fell short on customer service, they’d describe themselves as ‘a bit Thameslink’.

What the Poundland experience shows is that brands are now fighting back against what they see as unfair attacks. Nowhere was this more visible than in the Roseanne Barr case, where the TV star blamed sleeping pill Ambien for her racist tweets. Cue its maker Sanofi to respond (brilliantly) “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

Whereas in the past they may have ignored social media mentions or only responded weeks later, brands are now wising up to the protecting their online reputation. However, I think they need to balance speed with the following three factors:

1.Be polite and engaging
It would have been very easy for multibillion dollar drug company Sanofi to respond to Roseanne with a dry legal statement or to launch an attack of its own. Instead, it balanced politeness with cutting wit, simultaneously undermining her point and demonstrating its good corporate citizenship.

2.Don’t get personal
When a celebrity, particularly one with millions of followers, tweets about you it is easy for things to descend into a personal slanging match that actually further damages your brand. Try and take the moral high ground, state the facts and think before you tweet. After all, there are likely to be brand advocates who will defend you aggressively, letting you focus on your key messages.

3.Take a joke
Brand safety isn’t about jumping on every negative, throwaway mention of your company and overreacting/threatening legal action. Decide what is important, what can be handled by a simple denial, and where it makes more sense for your brand to play along and show that you have a sense of humour.

The past few weeks have shown that marketers are now taking positive steps to protect brand reputation online – they clearly have the monitoring systems in place to intervene early, but they need to make sure they don’t become too corporate if they are to actually enhance their reputations rather than adding to online damage through ill-thought out responses.

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June 6, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

World Cup marketing – is it worth it?

 

With the domestic football season nearly finished (though, as an Ipswich Town fan, it has felt over for a long time), attention is turning to the World Cup. While the hosts Russia don’t kick off the first match against Saudi Arabia until 14th June, brands are already launching their campaigns and trying to grab a piece of the action.

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Yet, they face some significant marketing challenges:

1. Location
Relations between Russia and the west are at a post-Cold War low, and there will be no high profile attendees from the UK government or royal family following the Salisbury poisoning. And, given the reputation of Russian hooligans (as seen at the last European Championships) and the vast distances involved in attending matches, only the most dedicated fans are likely to spend their cash to follow England.

2. Local colour
As several marketing gurus have pointed out, what makes a major sporting event like a World Cup is the local colour. This meant sponsors spent a great deal of time and effort linking themselves to Brazil for the Olympics/World Cup, adopting local imagery and using that to market their brands. Think shots of brands in front of palm trees, beaches or the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Given Russia’s reputation this is going to be more difficult – photos of your brand outside the Kremlin don’t have the same positive connotations. Therefore, most brands are going to focus on the football itself, which leaves them open to the vagaries of how teams actually play.

3. Competition
There are bewildering number of ways to become a sponsor involved in the World Cup. At the top end there are official FIFA partners (the likes of Visa, Hyundai, Coca-Cola and Gazprom), then World Cup sponsors and Regional partners. Each team has its own sponsors, and individual players have their own endorsements. Add in those brands that then try and sneak on board with ambush marketing, and the field looks very crowded indeed.

4. Picking the right horse
Given the costs involved it might therefore seem cost-effective to base your marketing around a particular player. But you have to be prepared if things go wrong – what happens if he fails to hit form, gets injured and doesn’t even play or is sent off? The perfect example of this was when Ireland captain Roy Keane was sent home from the 2002 World Cup after a bust-up with manager Mick McCarthy, before a ball was even kicked. Pity the Irish sponsors that had based their whole campaigns around Keane………

5. Social media makes everyone an expert
We’re all aware of media fragmentation and that the days of following a World Cup solely on TV and through daily newspapers are long gone. The internet and social media now means that everyone can share their views and comment on not just the matches, but your marketing campaigns. In our hypersensitive age, expect people to pick faults in your approach, or even to complain about any involvement in a tournament held in Putin’s Russia. All it takes is a slip of the mouse or an unfortunate turn of phrase and you’ll be facing a potential boycott – particularly if the on-field action isn’t that exciting.

After all this it would be easy to ask why sponsors bother. But the World Cup is one of the largest global sporting events, attracting millions, if not billions, of viewers. Get it right, and you’ll link yourself to sporting success, meaning you’ll be loved and admired by your audience – but remember that, as pundits frequently say, football is a funny old game………

May 16, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brand safety on the wild internet

The internet has always had contradictory roots. The infrastructure may have begun as a DARPA-funded project to create a network with no single point of failure, but its first major users were counter-culture Californians who launched bulletin boards on the back of it. And the World Wide Web itself was created by Tim Berners-Lee when working at CERN, essentially to allow different researchers, with different IT systems to share information seamlessly.

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This contradiction is still present in the titans that currently dominate the online world. The likes of Facebook and Google may try to publicly position themselves as entrepreneurial start-ups with more in common with the California hippies when talking to users, but in fact they are now enormous corporations with correspondingly huge power.

As we’ve seen with the scandals surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, internal systems and data protection haven’t grown as fast as the need for control of user data. And this follows concerns about adverts being run next to unsuitable content on the likes of YouTube, leading to brands such as Under Armour pulling their ads.

The issue is one of brand safety – companies want to protect their reputation as well as reach the right audiences. In an always-on world with ever more complex (and opaque) ad-buying systems and increasing personalisation being sure your messages are reaching the right audiences through the right channels is vital. This isn’t just applicable to the internet – I’ve recently seen lots of adverts for household cleaning products on kids TV channels, although you can argue they are more targeted at parents watching alongside their offspring.

The latest challenge to the big internet companies goes beyond poor ad positioning though – focusing instead on unauthorised use of a brand to essentially front a scam. Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com and consumer finance guru, is suing Facebook for running adverts that use his image to market high risk or fraudulent services, implying that he has endorsed them. Facebook counters that as soon as such adverts are reported, they remove them, only for them to pop up again with slight changes.

Given Lewis’ whole reputation is built on delivering honest consumer advice to save people money, it is no surprise either that he’s been targeted by scammers or that he is going to court to protect his brand image. As he says, he doesn’t do adverts, and that with their image recognition technology Facebook should be able to block anyone trying to use his photo, before it goes live. Lewis isn’t alone in having his details hijacked – we’ve all had emails and calls allegedly from Microsoft, BT or our bank trying to get us to handover control of our PC or account details. But the difference is that no third party is making money out of these activities – unlike in the case of Facebook.

By coming out against Facebook so publicly, and by promising to donate any damages to charity, Lewis is adding to the concerns around Facebook and its business model of publish first, remove later if necessary. It’s a great PR strategy on his part – a classic David vs Goliath move. I’m sure it is also being closely watched by other celebrities and organisations worried about their brand safety online.

All of the current concerns around big tech are part of a wider worry – from consumers to governments and advertisers themselves, people are waking up to the fact that their data is out of their control, and that companies are making large amounts of money from it. I think that 2018 is going to be a watershed year for the online giants – it is time for them to change how they market themselves and become more humble if they want to rebuild and retain our trust. The question is, can they win us back?

April 25, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why leaving social media is bad for JD Wetherspoon

Received marketing, and indeed business, wisdom is that the future is digital. And that has lead to brands stampeding onto social media and devoting increasing amounts of time and money to engaging with their audiences there.

So the news that pub chain JD Wetherspoon is quitting Twitter, Facebook and Instagram seems to fly in the face of good marketing practice. Chairman Tim Martin has been vague on the reasons why it is leaving, citing the amount of time it is taking (as well as head office, its 900 pubs all have their own accounts), the addictive nature of social media, misuse of personal data and the trolling of MPs and public figures on social media.

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But reading between the lines it is more about a lack of engagement and impact from its strategy. It has 44,000 followers on Twitter, over 100,000 on Facebook and more than 6,000 on Instagram – a relatively low number for such an enormous, UK-wide organisation. It hadn’t been that active – the announcement that it was leaving Twitter was its first message in April for example, and most Facebook content was just reposted from Twitter.

However, not doing something well and not doing it at all are two separate things and I believe that the main reason that Wetherspoon’s is stopping social media is that isn’t really embracing the power of the platforms. It is true that most consumers are unlikely to be avid followers of their local branch of a chain pub – after all you’d not interact that much with your local supermarket, but they’ve not used it to create a buzz about local events or what they are doing. Therefore, it is logical to stop, rather than just going through the motions – and reap the news headlines and profile that the decision creates.

However, done well social media can deliver big results – even for 100% offline businesses like Wetherspoons. Here are three of the biggest:

1. Create a community
Why do people go to pubs? It is all about socialising, meeting people and enjoying yourself. After all, if you just want to drink it is cheaper to do it at home. Successful local pubs are all about creating a community – it doesn’t have to be on the level of Cheers, where ‘everybody knows your name’, but it is about interacting. Social media does the same thing in the online world – so not being present means you are not nurturing your punters when they aren’t in the pub.

2. Keep the influencers informed
Wetherspoon says that news will still be available via its website, but in today’s environment most journalists and influencers get their news through social media. They raise questions and start debates, and Wetherspoon won’t be there to take part in them. No doubt its PR people will be there lurking, but that is not the same – and failing to have an active account doesn’t look good to those journos who live their lives on social media.

3. People don’t want to change channel for customer service
Consumers want to interact with a brand on the channel that is most convenient to them at that time. And that is quite often social media – they don’t want to switch to calling or emailing customer services, as Wetherspoon now recommends they do. So therefore complaints will go unanswered, visible only to other consumers, without Wetherspoon getting involved. This impacts brand reputation, particularly of individual pubs, and further damages engagement.

I don’t know how much time and money Wetherspoon was spending on social media, and it could well be that it isn’t getting the return it is looking for. But shooting the messenger, rather than changing the message isn’t a long term strategy to compete – as Wetherspoon may well find to its cost.

April 18, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Facebook, electoral manipulation and Cambridge Analytica

It’s a well-known fact that on ‘free’ social media sites, users are actually paying with their data, allowing them to be targeted with advertising that should match their preferences, and therefore be of interest. But the current revelations around Cambridge Analytica and Facebook show that the cost is potentially much greater than this, with personal data allegedly being used to microtarget and manipulate perceptions, and therefore heavily influence elections.

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While allegations into Cambridge Analytica’s role in the 2016 US election and Brexit referendum have been made for some time, with the company subject to multiple investigations, including the Mueller probe, what has brought it into the headlines more recently has been good, old-fashioned undercover reporting from Channel 4 News. It sent a reporter posing as a Sri Lankan businessman to find out how CA could help him influence a local election – and the results were not pretty. Even allowing for the bluster involved in pitching to a potentially lucrative client, CA’s now suspended boss Alexander Nix’s claims that he could use entrapment and bribery to bring down political opponents as well as microtargeting demonstrate a complete contempt for ethics.

The fall-out has been rapid. As a privately held company bankrolled in part by conservative hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer, CA has not suffered financially – but Facebook saw its company valuation drop by over $40 billion in the last two days, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg summoned to appear at a parliamentary committee to explain how the data of 50 million Facebook members was allegedly used (and retained) by Cambridge Analytica. At the same time the #DeleteFacebook hashtag on Twitter has been trending around the world.

Use of propaganda and half-truths to swing elections and mobilise voters is obviously nothing new, but the combination of the intimate position of social media in our lives and advances in psychological targeting mean that the majority of people are simply not equipped to understand when they are being manipulated through the likes of Facebook. And clearly the controls on the data that developers can harvest, access (and retain) are too lax to protect people.

So, I think two things need to happen. Facebook needs to put in tighter controls and make it obvious what data people are giving away when they use the service, download apps or take surveys. But more importantly for the political – and ethical – health of the population, everyone needs to be better educated about social media and online behaviour. Most of us have learnt how to pick out bias in newspapers, on TV and in the traditional media, but the personalised capabilities and echo chamber mentality of social media is something that has been thrust upon us without warning or time to adapt.

In the same way that people need to be taught to recognise fake news, they need to understand when they are being manipulated online. This should start in schools and encompass the whole population – if Mark Zuckerberg is smart he’ll attend the parliamentary committee, show that Facebook is changing and announce a global education programme on how to protect yourself on the network. Otherwise, the Cambridge Analytica story has the potential to significantly damage Facebook, hit revenues and reduce user numbers. The ball is in his court.

 

March 21, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Marketing to the disinterested

Marketing gets a lot of stick from consumers. While in the past it might have been complaints about junk mail and sales calls, now it is untargeted online ads and spam email. No wonder that so many people complain that they have had enough of marketing, and say they pay no attention to it.marketing-man-person-communication.jpg

However, as Joe Glover points out in his vlog, what they are actually moaning about, is bad marketing that ignores the fundamental definition of marketing itself. That is that marketing is about meeting the needs of the customer. Therefore, if your marketing campaign is not producing the right effect, then you have failed – not the idea of marketing itself. Essentially this type of bad marketing is now much more visible to us, as we see it in the digital world, including on our smartphones, where it feels much more personal and untargeted, particularly given the amount of data that we end up sharing online.

Good marketing is pretty much invisible – it interests us by either meeting an existing need or by pre-empting a need we didn’t necessarily know we had. While a huge amount of academic and practical work has gone into justifying the art and science of marketing, it simply comes down to consumer needs.

It reminds me of attending a marketing conference, where the founder of the English Whisky Company, a farmer called Andrew Nelstrop, stood up and said he’d built his business without marketing, and that therefore it wasn’t that much use. Of course, his explanation of how he’d met a need, listened to consumers and delivered the right product and experience was a text-book case of a solid, well-executed marketing programme. He just associated marketing with expensive advertising and therefore didn’t think it was for him.

Clearly meeting customer needs is a broad concept, which is why marketers have come up with different stages and models that take a consumer from initial awareness of a product or service all the way through to purchase and beyond. The granddaddy of them all is AIDA, which stands for:

  • Attention/Awareness – i.e. attracting the consumer
  • Interest – piquing their interest by focusing on benefits
  • Desire – making them want what you’ve got
  • Action – getting them to take a positive step such as purchase

The advantages of AIDA are that it is simple and can be applied to other activities rather than just buying something – voting, signing a petition or even joining an organisation. Where it does fall down is that it is a linear process that finishes with the sale – there’s no nurturing of the customer after that, no attempt to keep them loyal or to turn them into a brand advocate. That’s one of the reasons I like the model Joe Glover talks about (even if the acronym isn’t as memorable):

  • Awareness – getting in front of the consumer
  • Consideration – helping them when they want to buy something
  • Purchase – making it easy for them to buy
  • Retention – keeping them loyal
  • Advocacy – encouraging them leave reviews/recommendations

As a marketer the main thing is not the model that you pick – it is understanding that the aim of your company/product/service is to fill a customer need and creating a programme that does this as effectively as possible. Get it right and you’ll be invisible (except in terms of growing sales) – get it wrong and you’ll be stuck in consumers’ minds for all the wrong reasons.

February 7, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

PR and the frontline of the information war

Like a lot of relatively new terms, fake news has a long history. Claiming lies as the truth goes all the way back to ancient times, with propaganda and false claims used to justify activities and to hold onto power. Take the commonly held view we have of the ‘barbarian’ Celtic tribes that the Romans conquered, which ignores their culture and achievements, or the Shakespearian propaganda about the poor governance of Richard III.

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Frequently fake news is too polite a term for downright lies – and in many cases is used to complain about a point of view that while valid, you simply don’t agree with. On a more serious level, deliberate misinformation designed to sway public opinion is on the increase, thanks to the spread of social media and the fact that it cleverly backs up our own beliefs and prejudices.

Whatever the scale of Russian meddling in the US presidential election, it is not the first time the Kremlin has tried to disrupt democracy – but the combination of a receptive, partisan audience and easy access to millions of people makes it the most successful. And it isn’t likely to stop anytime soon – as CIA director Mike Pompeo recently pointed out he expects further interference in this year’s midterm elections.

Combating disinformation and fake news isn’t easy, but to be effective the solution has to involve everyone – from governments to individuals.

1.Governments
Many Western governments have been slow to realise the danger of fake news, and therefore haven’t acted to root it out. The US election has changed that, and governments are increasingly setting up dedicated teams to track and counter propaganda and other fake news. The UK Cabinet Office is creating a new unit to respond rapidly to fake news, whether from Russians or from other sources looking to warp public discourse.

2. Platforms
There’s an ongoing debate about social media and tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter and the responsibility they should take for identifying and removing fake news. They claim they are platforms, not publishers, but are under increasing pressure to police their users’ content more effectively. They need to step up and be prepared to out fake news – otherwise they are likely to face greater regulation and/or advertiser boycotts.

3. The PR industry
Communications professionals need to play their part as well. There is a line between spin and fake news, and it is up to us not to cross it and to make sure we are behaving ethically and advising clients accordingly. The Bell Pottinger case demonstrates that not only are there reputational risks to failing to follow good practice, but there are financial consequences as well. We need to think through the consequences of our actions as members of society, rather than simply pumping out messages to the world, without reflecting on their impact.

4. The public
It often feels that we live in an increasingly polarised world, with social media making it easy to screen out views we don’t agree with. At the same time we’re bombarded with information, and very often don’t take the time to review and check it before retweeting it or sharing on Facebook. As someone who studied history I know how important it is to understand the source of a piece of information and therefore the bias and particular message it contains. Everyone needs to do this – but at the same time they need to open themselves up to having a rational debate. Ignoring or trying to ban other (legal) points of view just reinforces prejudices – as the saying goes “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

With increasing military activity and sabre rattling in areas such as North Korea, fake news can seem relatively low level and harmless. But it is the frontline of an information war – and it is up to all of us to combat it if we are to move forward as a coherent, democratic society.

Image By United States Navy – Naval Education and Training Command website at http://www.netc.navy.mil/netc/Commands/NETCcenters.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56331324

January 31, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Facebook, News and the impact on communications

The last year or so has seen a rude awakening for tech giants, particularly social media platforms. As they’ve risen in importance, politicians, regulators and the public have moved from seeing their benefits to seeing their downsides – from the spreading of fake news to harbouring racist/terrorist content. Ironically, for the predominantly open and left-leaning leaders of Silicon Valley firms, social media has been at the heart of the Brexit vote and the Trump election, the two biggest political upsets of recent times.

And, all the while the profits of Facebook and Google have grown sharply – it is estimated that in 2017 these two tech giants alone claimed around 80% of every new online-ad dollar in America. Calls are being made for such companies to be more tightly regulated, and to take legal responsibility for the content that they host.

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Faced with this mounting opposition and a potential drop in usage, Facebook has been making changes to its algorithms, with the aim of focusing time spent on the platform on ‘meaningful social interactions’, according to founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. That means reducing the amount of content that people see in their News Feed from media and businesses, with the balance shifting more towards content from family and friends.

Publishers have grown to increasingly rely on Facebook for traffic to their sites, and many have already seen a drop in referrals from the social network. This has led to job cuts at many newer media outlets that have relied on social traffic (such as Buzzfeed and Mashable), as well as consternation from others worried about the impact of the changes on their revenues. Rupert Murdoch has called for Facebook to pay ‘carriage fees’ for using news from media outlets on the site, while others have demanded subscription models to support their journalism.

The key problem for publishers is that Facebook has increasingly become the place many people get their news, meaning you need to continually interest them with individual stories, rather than expecting them to buy a newspaper or browse from a news website’s home page. Many Facebook users probably couldn’t tell you who published the story they clicked on – and the same is true for other newsfeed services such as that offered on iPhones.

So publishers risk having the rug pulled out from under a major source of traffic – at the same time that Google and Facebook have hoovered up the ad revenues that previously supported their activities. While most people won’t shed that many tears at Rupert Murdoch’s power and profits reducing, there are bigger issues here around media plurality and holding people to account at all levels.

The dramatic drop in local newspapers has meant that councils are under less scrutiny from journalists than ever before, and while concerned citizens have taken over in some cases, they are less likely to be impartial or have the training to analyse and comment on complicated stories. I believe that the rise of the internet in general, and of social media in particular, has also contributed to a polarisation of views – people simply don’t see content that constructively challenges their point of view and makes them think about their beliefs. Being in a bubble makes it easy to reinforce existing beliefs and demonise the opposition, ultimately hurting democratic dialogue.

It is too easy to blame Facebook for all of these issues, but it does need to step up and take more responsibility for the consequences of its actions. That means looking at how it works with publishers, and the type of content it does carry, if it is to avoid heavier regulation and potential fines down the line. The ball is definitely in Zuckerberg’s court.

Image (CC) Brian Solis, http://www.briansolis.com / bub.blicio.us, via Wikimedia Commons

January 24, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The lessons from the top 5 PR disasters of 2017

As we come to the end of the year, we’ve seen some stunningly good PR campaigns that have shifted people’s perceptions or reinforced brand leadership. But 2017 has also seen more than its fair share of PR cock-ups, where businesses have completely ignored communication good practice and not only damaged their reputations, but also their standing and share price.Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer

Here are my top 5 PR disasters of 2017:

1. United Airlines
Dragging a screaming passenger off an overbooked plane while onlookers recorded the event on their smartphones was bad enough. But United Airlines then blamed the passenger, Dr David Dao, who suffered concussion in the incident, for being ‘belligerent’, with CEO Oscar Munoz only fully apologising after the share price fell dramatically. Ironically, Munoz had been named PR Week US Communicator of the Year just a month before. The lesson from this story is that when events turn emotive, despite the fact that you are only following procedures, and that the staff involved in pulling Dao from the plane were law enforcement officers not United employees, you need to show empathy and understanding rather than blaming your customers.

2. Uber
Where to start? Through most of 2017 Uber appeared to be the epitome of a ‘jerk tech’ company, caring nothing for law, its employees or its customers. Stories included allegations of sexism and sexual harassment, surge pricing that capitalised on misfortune, a secret app designed to deflect regulators, losing its licence in London, payments to hackers after its systems were broken into, and a continuing court case that it allegedly stole trade secrets from Google. Oh, and then-CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with/abusing one of his own drivers. All of this led to its urban clientele moving to rivals, removing first mover advantage and downgrading its capitalisation in its forthcoming funding round.

To be fair to Uber, its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over at the end of August, is working hard to change the brand’s reputation. He has issued heartfelt apologies for past misconduct, and explained to all staff of the importance of reputation to the business’ success. While it is early days, he seems to be balancing the difficult job of changing culture, while keeping the right staff with the company as it moves forward.

3. Sean Spicer
It is tempting to include Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 10 days as Donald Trump’s communications chief before publicly abusing his colleagues, in this list. However, for the range and bare-faced toeing of the party line, I have to go with Sean Spicer. From initially disputing photographic evidence of the number of people at the presidential inauguration to claiming that, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler because at least the Nazi leader never gassed his own people, ignoring the deaths of six million Jews, he seemed to be alternately making his own cock-ups and retelling a line that no-one believed. Good communications has to be based in fact – and it is the job of a spokesperson to ensure that the message being delivered is clear, cogent and believable. Spicer, no doubt under great pressure from above, failed on all counts.

4. Bell Pottinger
A key rule of PR is that if you are the spokesperson or PR agency, never become the story yourself. Another high profile casualty of this was PR agency Bell Pottinger. Involvement in a racially divisive campaign for the shadowy Gupta family in South Africa earned it censure, removal from industry body the PRCA, and the agency go into administration. In today’s world ethically questionable campaigns do get discovered, and the consequences are potentially disastrous.

5. Kevin Spacey
One of the biggest stories of the year was the bravery of victims of workplace sexual harassment and sexual violence, who stood up, accused their attackers and told their stories. From Harvey Weinstein to the House of Commons, they shone a spotlight on a culture and behaviour that was unacceptable. Kevin Spacey, one of those accused, deserves especial opprobrium for using his ‘apology’ to come out as gay, in an apparent attempt to deflect anger from his behaviour. Given one of the accusations made about him was of sexual advances towards under-age boys, his statement linked paedophilia with homosexuality in a way that reinforced previous prejudices.

I’m sure there are other, potentially less high profile but equally damaging, PR disasters that haven’t made it onto my list. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below.

December 13, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Luther and Leave – the communication comparisons

As someone who studied history I have a tendency to take a long view of events, comparing and contrasting different eras. And, given this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is worth looking at any lessons that can be learnt by communicators from Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door and the widespread rise of anti-establishment movements around the world.Martin_Luther,_1529

First, the political and economic context. Europe in 1517 was made up of multiple, often warring, countries, with power normally focused on a single monarch. Communication was vital to control – you had to know what was going on around your kingdom to ensure order, and larger countries relied on local lords for their support. Most people had a hard life, focused on the land and governed by harvests and the weather. There was one supranational authority, the Catholic Church, which claimed loyalty from all monarchs and their subjects. The rules it set helped ensure its power, pre-eminence and wealth, and Luther’s rebellion was very much against the more worldly behaviour of priests and religious bodies.

Probably 100 years before, Luther’s theses would not have got very far beyond the town he wrote them in. He’d have been arrested by the church, charged, executed and probably forgotten. But the invention of the printing press changed all that, allowing fast communication of his thoughts across Europe, where they could be picked up and turned into a mass movement.

Comparing then and now
Power today is a lot more decentralised, and rule by monarchs has been superseded by elected parliaments. There is a European supranational authority, the European Union, but only its most avid detractors would claim it had the same power over life, death and potential entry into Heaven as the Catholic Church. Instead of the printing press, we have the internet, and particularly social media, which is much more difficult to control, even by the networks themselves.

So, there are a lot of parallels between then and now – an angry population that feels hard done by attacks the establishment, whipped up by charismatic leaders. Both rely on the latest communications technology to sidestep official controls, spreading their message across long distances.

However, what I think is different is that Luther had a positive message that he firmly believed in – he’d been a monk, seen the church from the inside and created an alternative vision based on that. In the same way, Marx and Engels spent years studying the working conditions of the poor before drafting the Communist Manifesto. In contrast today’s populist leaders don’t seem to have a strategy beyond bringing down the old order, with policies that either pander to their followers or offer alternatives that are impossible (Vote Leave and the NHS will get an extra £350m per week) or will cause more harm than good to those that vote for them.

The lessons for communicators from both these examples are clear – if you want your message to resonate you need to have a strong presence on the latest communication channels, whether the printing press or Facebook, and more importantly you need to ensure you are seen as being in-touch with the cares and concerns of those who feel they are not being listened to. After all, the Reformation triggered bloody and sustained wars, the Inquisition and a hardening of positions that is still in evidence today in some countries. Politicians need to take that lesson on board and communicate effectively to woo the disaffected back into the mainstream if they want to remain relevant in today’s society.

December 6, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment